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Watercolor paintings require the artist to balance a preliminary idea for the painting with the flow-charcteristics of wet-in-wet watercolor. Learning to adapt to watercolor's propensity for surprise takes years of practice and familiarisation with the medium. Different pigments diffuse across wet paper at different rates and this can contribute to a beautiful opalescence of colors. Moreover, the watercolor pigments themselves are heterogeneous in character: some are more transparent and 'staining', others somewhat more opaque and 'heavier' and these latter tend to sediment into the tooth of the paper contributing to the watercolor effect known as granulation.
The transparency of the medium is another factor that takes some getting used to: watercolor is akin to sculpture since the watercolorist 'sculpts away' the white of the paper with color, and leaves the white of the paper to serve as light or highlight rather than employing white paint. Once the white of the paper is over-painted , there is no going back - the white is forever lost. Thus a preliminary plan of attack is often needed before proceeding. This planning usually involves a consideration of where lights are to be left (the white ground of the paper), where are hard edges are required, and similarly, where soft edges are needed.
Due to the transparent nature of the medium, traditionally the watercolorist begins with the lightest lights and finishes with the darkest darks. However, many beginners have difficulty with this traditional approach since it tends to yield (initially at least) rather pallid looking watercolors. This is largely for two reasons: firstly, the least blush of color placed onto the pristine white of the paper seems to be rather too intense at first since there are not yet any darker values; secondly, watercolor tends to dry a tone or two lighter than it appears when still wet. This means the artist must pitch the tones at a value somewhat darker than intended. For these reasons, a few watercolorists (notably Ted Kautzky) often established their darkest darks first. This assists the artist by providing a 'key' against which to measure tonal values, and allows a more even-tempered spread of the intervening tonal range thereby ultimately achieving both a balanced and more dramatic effect of light in watercolor painting.
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Images and text © copyright 1995-2003 Wayne Roberts. All rights reserved.
Paintings from top left: Alps near Briancon; The lifeboat; Antiphon. All watercolours by Wayne Roberts